Considering the risky business that is fiction publishing today, it seems odd that printing a novella by an unknown author could be considered a safe move for a small, independent publisher. So it's more than curious that Girls in Peril by Karen Lee Boren (Tin House Books, $10.95, 128 pages), the first in the "New Voice" series of books by local literary magazine Tin House, feels like a safe choice.
Touted on the back cover as "a novella about the special bonds between young women on the verge of adulthood," Girls in Peril follows Jeanne, Corinne, Lauren, Stacey and Donna. Those are the five "known as 'the neighborhood girls,' and we were proud that together we had a firmly fixed identity." Yes, that's a "we": Like The Virgin Suicides, this tale is told in the first person plural. Coupled with scarce description, it makes for vaguely sketched and unevenly defined characters; when one girl plays a dumb knife-throwing game or reads Tiger Beat, they all do. While this may be an accurate representation of adolescents, it peppers the book with characters largely unknown. Peril begins when Jeanne (the leader), has her superfluous thumb amputated; while Boren's thumb-as-metaphor musings may be elongated to hint at the interpersonal dynamics, the thumb itself emerged as a more fully formed character than Donna or Stacey.
Boren's minimalist language is alternately vivid—a mother pulls her children in "by their T-shirts, which stretched away from their bodies like tents"—and cliché, as when "boredom hung over us like a fog." The little events that comprise the book's plot—squabbles, tricks on the Avon lady—are typically chalked up as metaphor and forgotten about as the next event continues. This would be fine, were it not for the girls' unsettlingly staid reactions when actual peril comes to town. At the perfect opportunity for insight and elaboration, the book ends; save for Jeanne and her lost thumb, the other girls emerge the way they came out: largely unknown.
It's genuine cause for celebration that a literary magazine which has published original fiction by Deborah Eisenberg, Denis Johnson and Aimee Bender—and is hosting a genuinely star-studded summer workshop next week—is now publishing original books. Like the magazine itself, "New Voice" promises to be a challenging and eclectic mix of intelligent writing. While Girls in Peril is a tenderly written debut, it starts off the series with less bang and more whimper than one would hope for.
Tin House Summer Writers Workshop '06 will be held at Reed College from July 9 to July 16. For more information or to register, visit www.tinhouse.com.